Learning About Ancient Greek Athletes from a Roman Statue

Roman Copy of a 5th century Greek statue

The Daidoumenos of Vaison is a Roman marble statue of an ancient Greek athlete. Found at Vaison, a Roman town in Southern France, this beautiful piece is at the British Museum (because the Louvre refused to buy it for its ‘unreasonable price’!). The statue is a Roman copy of a Greek original in bronze. Just think for a second about how much the Romans learnt from the Greeks… After conquering their lands, they brought back home all their most beautiful artworks and took inspiration from them. Clearly, they couldn’t forget the Daidoumenos, a sculpture by one of the most famous artists of Classical Greece, Polykleitos.

Daidoumenos, Roman copy of a Greek statue
The Daidoumenos, Roman Copy of an Ancient Greek Athelet. British Museum

1. The Representation of Perfection in Greek and Roman Sculpture

The statue portrays an Olympic winner lifting his arms to knot a ribbon around his head. This Daidoumenos (which literally means ‘ribbon wearer’), had just received a ribbon for winning an athletic competition. Of course, the athlete is still naked! And his muscles are contracted as would be normal after a physical contest. A wonderful occasion for Polykleitos! The excellent sculptor could use the nudity and the athletic body of the athlete to improve his ability to portray perfection and beauty. The original statue was made of bronze, a material that more closely represented the tanned and oiled skin of the victor.

Apollo, Roman Copy of a Greek original statue of Apollo
Polykleitos’ experiments on the representation of the human body. Roman copy, Louvre

2. The Idealisation of the Human Figure

But who is this athlete? and what can his portrait tell us of him? Not much… in the 5th century BC Greek sculptors did not aim at real portraiture: statues didn’t need to resemble the physical characteristics of their owners. Instead, artists aimed at the idealisation of the human figure. While a real ancient Greek athlete actually received the Daidoumenos as a gift, the statue represented him as a generic and beautiful victor, whose perfection could inspire all viewers coming across it.

Doryphoros, Roman Copy of a Greek Original
Roman Copy of a Greek original by Polykleitos, depicting a ‘Spear-bearer’. Minneapolis Institute of Art

3. Beauty: the ultimate value of Goodness

Being athletic, beautiful and going to the palaestra (gym), wasn’t less important than going to school or learning about Homer. And Statues of Olympic winners deserved everyone’s attention: the values of Beauty and Goodness were strictly associated. Unfortunately, we can’t know what the athlete behind the image looked like. However, there is something that this statue can tell us about him! he won 3 Olympic games, which is why he received a statue. One-time winners received, other than fame and glory, ‘only’ a ribbon and some oil.

Ancient Greek Athletes at the Gym, 5th century vase
Ancient Greek Athletes Training at the Gym on a 5th cent Vase. British Museum

4. Artistic Achievements of 5th Century Greece

For sure Greek artists of the 5th century achieved unprecedented results, as one can also see from the contemporary Sculptural Program of the Parthenon. But 5th century vase painting is no less impressive! If you like Classical Art and want to learn more about it, try our treasure hunts at the British Museum and at the Louvre! If you’re feeling competitive and want to get a leg up on the other treasure hunters, don’t forget to check our other British Museum blog posts giving away bonus points.

Just a heads up: some of the things in bold might be answers to bonus questions on your Fun & Games Treasure Hunt!

This Blog Post is also available in Italian!

One Comment on “Learning About Ancient Greek Athletes from a Roman Statue

  1. Hi Anna,
    This is great, thank you for writing! I have to get myself to Minneapolis one day, as that Spear Bearer copy doesn’t look half bad!

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